The Shadow of the Torturer

Gene Wolfe
The Shadow of the Torturer Cover

Don't be fooled! The plot is not the point.


"It's a pity you are a torturer," Ultan said. "You might have been a philosopher" (p. 47).

I think Gene Wolfe is talking about himself. Again.

But torturer, he is, and my casual, unstudied approach to reading SF has failed me in this instance. With Wolfe, heuristic reading is the worst way to go. The Shadow of the Torturer requires preparation. A briefing. Nobody told me this is no superficial fantasy story.


"If there are layers of reality beneath the reality we see, even as there are layers of history beneath the ground we walk upon..." (p. 103).

Well, hell. You're talking about this book, aren't you?

"...everything, whatever happens, has three meanings... The book is saying that everything is a sign" (p. 190).

So, you're saying "the book" is actually this book, and any mystical generalizations you make about the ways of Urth can be attributed to this story on the "reflective" level, and to life and spirituality on the "transsubstantial" level? Are you getting meta on me?

"Her gown had been torn by a branch, exposing one breast..." (p. 124).

Okay, so maybe not everything has a deeper meaning.

"We... imagine ourselves... our own masters, when the truth is that our masters are sleeping. One wakes within us and we are ridden like beasts, though the rider is but some hitherto unguessed part of ourselves" (p. 110).

"Have I said that time turns our lies into truths?" (p. 111).

Is it safe to assume that Severian, our ambivalent torturer, isn't exactly as he appears? Maybe that will inject him with a little personality.

"'Now everyone is here! The show will begin in a moment or two. Not for the faint of heart! You have never seen anything like it, anything at all! Everyone is here now'" (p. 191).

But it's nearly the end of the book! What do you mean the show is about to begin?

"Do you think there are answers to everything here?" (p. 125).

Uh, well, er... maybe I should read the rest of the tetralogy first?

"Dr. Talos demanded much from the imagination with narration, simple yet clever machinery, shadows cast upon screens,... reflective backdrops, and every other conceivable sleight" (pp. 191-192).

So you're saying I need to read this again...

"And in the end, I threatened to strike her if she did not desist... (p. 151).

"If we desire a woman, we soon come to love her for her condescension in submitting to us..." (p. 162).

Dude, this was published in my lifetime. You need to stop that shit.


The Shadow of the Torturer, and likely the rest of The Book of the New Sun series, is like those autostereogram posters from the nineties. At first glance, it looks like a garbled mess, a simple three-color smear. But, those basic colors are allusory, and those who relax their gaze to see beyond the surface will find more than the bizarre story of an outcast torturer getting from Point A to Point B, by way of Point 9, Point 37, Point Σ, and Point #@!, checking out a few breasts along the way.

Those surreal, fragmented Points come from layered universes, quite literally, according to Severian, whom I doubt we can trust. But the text also hints (no, it actually states, quite clearly, but I'm too dumb to notice) at "reflective" and "transsubstantial" meanings. The story tells you about the story and, in turn, it tells you about life--or, likely Gene Wolfe's personal and metaphysical interpretations of life.

"Triumphing in all this, he yet failed. For his desire was to communicate, to tell a great tale that had being only in his mind and could not be reduced to common words" (p. 192)

Seems a bit full of himself, doesn't he?

I know about this double and triple meaning stuff because I read others' reviews, something I usually avoid until I have posted my own. (I like to see how I do without the help of my favorite reviewers.) But this case proved too puzzling--many authors and bloggers and readers, whose opinions I respect, hail this series as a masterpiece. At first read, I found this first novel curious but stale, interesting in places, but I was distracted by major breastage. Now I know I missed the point. How embarrassing.

Now, aware of its allusory content, I look back at my highlighted passages and see the truth glaring at me, floating on top of the main tale, just like an image on an autostereogram poster. That second layer, Wolfe's so-called "reflective layer," speaks volumes of foreshadowing and symbolism. And the third layer? I don't much care about Wolfe's transsubstantial third layer, but let's see where this goes...

"Here I pause. If you wish to walk no farther with me, reader, I cannot blame you. It is no easy road" (p. 210).

Shut up, Gene Wolfe, with your thinly veiled challenge. You can't get rid of me, no matter how many breasts you've got flopping around your tale. Go select your weird, razor flower weapon. I'll be there.

More to come...